Mason County Memories… War in the coalfields


By Chris Rizer - Special to the Register



After a major United Mine Workers victory in 1902, mine operators began strategizing and plotting their counterattack. Little did anyone know just how violent it would get.

Aside from isolated incidents, the major strikes of 1894 and 1897 had been relatively peaceful. Certainly, West Virginia didn’t see any violence on the scale of Homestead, Pullman, and Lattimer. It was worse in 1902-03, with major fighting in the New River Valley provoked by the Baldwin-Felts strikebreakers and shots fired even here in Mason County, but that was nothing compared to what was coming.

When miners walked out of the forty-one Paint Creek mines in 1912, their demands were simple. Raise their pay by two cents to the equal the neighboring mines, pay in cash instead of company store scrip, quit rigging the weights that determined pay, and recognize the United Mine Workers. After the fifty-five Cabin Creek mines joined the strike, mine owners moved quick to contain it.

Determined to break the union once and for all, it was a no-holds-barred, knock-down-drag-out fight. Mine owners brought in the Baldwin-Felts strikebreakers, who built and manned machine gun emplacements on the roads leading up the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek hollers, evicted the union miners, and brought in scab labor. Beatings were frequent, due process was denied, and free speech was restricted. Mine operator Quinn Morton even went so far as to commission an armored train, the “Bull Moose Special,” equipped with Gatling guns to attack and destroy the striking miners’ tent colonies. On that particular train were Morton, the company’s mine guards, Kanawha County Sheriff Bonner Hill and several of his deputies, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway police.

For their part, the coal miners burned company stores to the ground, dynamited coal tipples, and destroyed crucial bridges and tunnels. Unlike the coal operators, who freely committed outright murder while the county sheriffs watched, the miners targeted the company’s checkbooks. Modern estimates, adjusted for inflation, suggest over $2,000,000,000 in damages.

It was the mine operators, mine guards, Baldwin-Felts detectives, county sheriffs, and National Guard against the miners, yet the miners gave as good as they got and weren’t without allies of their own.

As soon as the strike was announced, the “grandmother of all agitators” came back to West Virginia. In a speech on the Old Capitol steps before 5,000 striking miners, Mother Jones looked down at the state motto “Mountaineers are Always Free” carved in white marble and swore that “we are going to make that good or we will tear up that inscription.” Eyewitnesses reported, “She might have been any coal miners’ wife ablaze with righteous fury when her brood was in danger.” Upton Sinclair later wrote, “she was the walking wrath of God.”

Her influence kept the peace at first, as she attempted to persuade Governor Glasscock to intervene. But as the mine guards were increasingly violent, so were “her boys.” Mucklow, Dry Branch, and Erskdale were the scenes of frontier battles as fierce as any fought in the 1700s, and by the end of 1912, most of the Kanawha coalfields were under martial law. That led to over 200 unionist imprisonments in the spring in 1913, including Mother Jones, who was reportedly imprisoned for reading the Declaration of Independence to striking miners and only later charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

While imprisoned in Pratt, she managed to smuggle a telegram to Senator John Kern of Indiana, writing him, “I send you the groans and tears and heartaches of men, women, and children as I have heard them in this state. From out of these prison walls, I plead with you for the honor of this nation, to push that investigation, and the children yet unborn will rise and call you blessed.” That telegram persuaded a majority of the Senate to call for an investigation into what Jones later called “medieval West Virginia,” one of the first ever by the federal government into the affairs of a state.

Soon after, newly-elected Governor Hatfield settled the strike with a guaranteed nine-hour work day, the right to have a miner check weights, and making discrimination against union miners unlawful. This settled the Kanawha coalfields, though tensions remained throughout much of the state.

Information from the WV State Archives and WV Encyclopedia.

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By Chris Rizer

Special to the Register

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.